Skills and Genes

Where's the Line?

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

“My toddler has mastered the cello.”

This is a ridiculous statement, right? A toddler 1) doesn’t possess the required physical abilities such as coordination and dexterity; 2) hasn’t been in the world long enough to have received sufficient training; and 3) is not developmentally at a stage where she can “master” a skill like this.

On the flip side, we might expect our puppies and adult dogs to be pros at things they’ve either never been taught or have had very little practice doing. We’ve all heard a dog owner say to his dog, “you know better than that.” It’s likely the dog “knows” the behavior in other settings, but not that specific one. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been guilty of the “knows better” exclamation, but at some point, we realize it’s not the dog’s responsibility to magically learn skills; it’s our responsibility to teach them. Without trained skills, a dog will act however her doggie programming has told her to act.

Many behaviors we want don’t come naturally to our pups, and at the same time we want to suppress some of their natural but undesirable (to us) behaviors. How do we reconcile these conflicting needs and maintain a healthy relationship?

What’s in your dog’s genes?

Recognizing what’s genetically programmed and what needs to be taught (or managed) is a good first step. Of course, each dog is an individual with her own unique genetic soup, but there are some basic “dog cultural” characteristics which can help us discern what’s what. Once we have that figured out, we can make progress.

“Don’t Blame the Dog for Failing to Live up to Human Expectations” (Chris Bach)

Fetch is a good example of a behavior chain that contains both types of behaviors: genetic and learned. For most of our predator dogs, only the first few links in this chain come pre-programmed: chase and acquire. The links at the end - return to human and relinquish - are learned skills. Additional criteria can be taught, such as deliver to hand or come front, but it’s doubtful that dogs would be able to reliably execute such a maneuver without intentional training.

We are the Missing Link

Our own knowledge and skillsets directly affect not only our dogs, but everyone who interacts with her. There’s no shame in not knowing how to do something that we don’t know how to do. The problem is when we blame our learner for not executing a skill that we did not know how to teach her.

To summarize

Learn the skills you need to train the skills you want your dog to have. And keep learning! Positive-reinforcement-based training classes, on-line or in-person, are great ways to build our training toolboxes. Also, don’t blame your dog for not knowing what she doesn’t know.

Excerpt from “The Misunderstanding of Time,” by Nancy Tanner. “You cannot rush your skills, or your dog’s understanding of your skills. …learn how to settle in, learn that nothing will happen overnight. Learn that if you try to take shortcuts and try to make it all happen to fit your schedule, or your desires, or your needs, it will come back to bite you in the ass, figuratively or literally.”

Happy Training